Trails Across Time... Trails Across Adversity

Re-Thinking the Benefits of Trails and Greenways.

by Robert (Bob) Searns, Owner, Robert Searns and Associates, Inc.

Last May, I was heading home from a conference in downtown Denver. It was late afternoon and as I headed west toward my home, I saw it— a dark roiling plume of smoke rising from the foothills. Large and menacing, it was billowing into what had been a cloudless day. Within minutes, almost the entire southwest quadrant of the sky was filled with smoke and the sun was turning blood red behind it. It was an unnerving sight— the Hayman Fire— the first of many that would burn across our part of the country this past summer. Along with the fires, we were also experiencing the worst drought in Colorado's history. The column of smoke reminded me of something that horrified us all the September before. Though I knew we didn't live in a wild fire zone, I instinctively picked up my cell phone and called home.

To say that the wave of natural disasters and terrorism has shaken us from complacency would be an understatement. In fact it is scaring many of us to death. Coupled with this are growing economic and fiscal problems— our state budget is now about $1 billion in the hole. In the months and years to come, I have no doubt that we will all be tested both as individuals and as people with a passion for trails and greenways. Like the body pumping our adrenaline when threatened— a sense of survival as priority may take over and other pursuits viewed as superfluous may begin to shut down.

These times of challenge can seem daunting, but as a nation, we have gone through crises before and each time we have emerged stronger and better. These are times when we look both within ourselves and to leaders to navigate troubled waters. As people who care about the American landscape and our relationship with it, it will be a time when we will be called upon to share our talents and to lead. What we do as trail and greenway advocates will not be superfluous or trivial in these times and here is why.

Maintaining the integrity of our values as a nation is a paramount element of weathering tough times. Our landscape and how we treat it has been, and must remain, important. It is more than just aesthetics, because our relationship with our natural resources is a key aspect of this crisis— as the fires out west demonstrated. Our physical, mental and spiritual health is equally important. Trails and greenways are important in this picture.

So where DO we fit in? Through our work, we need to convey a message. That message needs to be about a sense of stewardship in our wild lands and open spaces (in both city and more remote places). Wildfires and mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus might challenge these values when people feel less safe. We will need to improve our skills, learn more, and help people learn to better live with a troubled landscape that ultimately must sustain us. We need to explore ways that greenways and trails improve the economic well being of states and communities and how trails and greenways promote better health and fitness.

Speaking of fitness, it is ironic that while people fear a rogue virus or an attack alert, they are far more likely to suffer harm and death from lack of physical activity. We need to convey the message that greenways and trails can promote learning— expanding the idea that wild places and conservation projects near schools offer the best kind of learning opportunities. We need to convey the message that greenways and trails can improve the way we treat our follow human beings and ourselves. That is because landscapes are places of healing, places to get back in touch and find spiritual solace. When we do violence to a landscape or deprive people access to the natural outdoors, we do violence to our humanity and to each other.

Trails and greenways are places that help us be in the moment. They are not strictly utilitarian or perfunctory, they are places of regeneration and peace. Even in a crisis, especially in a crisis, we need that. As outdoor author Philip Ferranti put it, these places grant us "freedom from the artificial." Walking on a trail, peddling a bike or paddling a canoe is movement under our own power. Paul Gruchow, author of Boundary Waters, says that this transcends time in a way that connects us with those who walked through the woods 10,000 years ago and those who will walk this way 10,000 years from now. More importantly, it connects us with ourselves. Or, as Gruchow says, it takes us beyond the workaday notion of action for perfunctory gain and allows us the "luxury of viewing life as an unfolding of gifts."

These are not superfluous things. Indeed, they go to the heart of what humanity is all about. In the years that come trails and greenways may also offer a way to promote a new kind of tourism-- service tourism. Imagine physicians, dentists, carpenters, or just folks who want to lend a hand signing up for a trek along a trail through a developing country performing service along the way. As the baby boomers move into elderhood, not wanting to forsake their acquired skills may be a trend we see emerge.

I've been told that the Chinese character for crisis also denotes opportunity. Indeed, crisis is rich with opportunity. Sometimes that is what it takes to awaken a people, to address issues and solve problems that have previously been avoided. To navigate these turbulent waters takes strength, wisdom, vision, and a compass of values so that we head in the right direction and we don't, in the heat of adversity, surrender what we are all about. This is where leadership is so important both to preserve our values and to take on the challenges that must be addressed.

Here is our opportunity: we can leave a landscape legacy and a legacy of values that will endure and help shape the character of what we will be in the decades and generations to come. Indeed, it appears that history is hungry and we are likely in for a rough ride, but as Sandy Dahl, wife of Flight 93 Captain Jason Dahl, said at the Shanksville, PA remembrance this past September, "Adversity does not bring out the best in people, it reveals it."

About the Author

Robert Searns has a four-decade history of visualizing, planning, and getting trails and greenway projects built. He was Project Director of Denver’s Platte River and Mary Carter Greenways—both national-award-wining projects. He helped plan the Grand Canyon National Park Greenway, played a key role on the Memphis Wolf River Greenway, and authored the Commerce City, CO Walk, Bike, Fit plan. He has written for Planning, Landscape Architecture, LA China, and American Trails Magazines and has served as Editor-in-Chief of Trails and Beyond Magazine. He chaired American Trails and was a founder of The World Trails Network as well as being a delegate to the America’s Great Outdoors White House conclave. His current book is Beyond Greenways: The Next Step For City Trails and Walking Routes, published in 2023 by Island Press. He resides, writes, hikes, and bikes near Denver, Colorado.

Contact: [email protected]

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